How could my mother be so cruel Middle-class woman shaved ten-year-old's head, put him in a wheelchair and said he had cancer so she could pocket 85,000 benefits
Emma La Garde, 37, was jailed for three years and nine months
She banked more than 85,000 by abusing her adoring sonUsed benefits to fund Florida holiday where she kept him in wheelchairHer son: 'I don't like her – she is evil. I don't think she has a normal brain'
23:55 GMT, 16 November 2012
00:06 GMT, 17 November 2012
Lies: Emma La Garde shaved her son's head and eyebrows to pretend he had cancer in a sick benefit fraud
To their neighbours, they were a typical middle-class family: mum, dad and their three polite, well turned-out children. Home was a four-bedroom detached house with stunning views of the Gloucestershire countryside, and the family drove a shiny new car.
Though there was no obvious source of household income (dad had apparently lost his job in the recession), that didn’t stop them from going on expensive holidays and enjoying frequent weekends away.
The only fly in the ointment was the precarious health of the family’s eldest son. Though to the casual observer the boy seemed to be bouncing with energy, it became painfully obvious that something was badly wrong when he lost his hair and eyebrows.
Generally, the family tended to shy away from social contact, but now his mother — uncharacteristically open for once — tearfully informed neighbours that the boy had cancer.
And when a wheelchair was spotted being hauled into the house, it was clear that he had taken a turn for the worse.
Or was it In reality, the only sick person in that household was the poor child’s mother. A perfectly healthy schoolboy, he was made to believe that he was seriously ill so he could play his part in a twisted charade convincingly — a scam set up in order that his mother could fraudulently claim benefits.
Only now can the full extent of the scam be laid bare, with the woman in question, 37-year-old Emma La Garde, finally locked up for banking more than 85,000 by abusing her adoring son.
Jailing La Garde for three years and nine months this week, Judge Jamie Tabor QC described her conduct as ‘quite beyond the pale’.
Indeed, such was his revulsion at her behaviour — which he said had inflicted ‘undoubted long-term psychological harm [on her son] from which he may never recover’ — he took a personal interest in ensuring the press could publish as many details of the case as possible, without jeopardising her children’s anonymity.
The facts about her are set out here, using, as the judge ordered, a false name. Her offences, however, are all too real.
This is a woman who stole her son’s childhood, forcing him to act out the role of invalid when all he wanted to do was play on his trampoline.
She shaved his hair and eyebrows, confined him to a wheelchair he did not need, and banned him from playing with friends in the playground or taking part in any physical activities at school because of his ‘condition’.
When he turned up at school in a bandana – which his mother pleaded with teachers not to remove ‘to save his embarrassment’ — he was viciously bullied by fellow pupils.
Yet for all the torment he endured, and the massive pressure of maintaining such an enormous lie, the boy, who is now ten years old, went along with his mother’s wishes.
Stolen childhood: Emma La Garde banned her son from playing with friends in the playground or taking part in any physical activities at school (file picture)
His reward He is now languishing in care, effectively abandoned by a mother who has indicated she wants nothing more to do with him.
To add insult to injury, it is understood that she has maintained contact with his younger siblings, who are also in care, visiting them three times a week in the run-up to her trial in the hope that they’ll be returned to her when she is released from prison.
The depressing tale carries echoes of another infamously exploitative mother, Karen Matthews, who — in at attempt to make money — in 2008 tricked the nation into believing that her daughter Shannon had been abducted.
But while some argued that Karen Matthews may have been driven to such a terrible act by her impoverished and dysfunctional life on a council estate, Emma La Garde has no such excuse. For her affluent lifestyle could not be further removed from the depressing existence of the Matthews clan.
Witness La Garde’s appearances at Gloucester Crown Court. Granted, she cut a forlorn figure, clutching a bag of prescription medication (of which she went on to take an overdose, after being convicted of child cruelty, eight counts of fraud and forging a doctor’s letter).
Hometown: The mother, who forged doctors' notes and made it look like the boy was taking medication for cancer, is from Stroud, Gloucestershire (file picture)
The pills, however, were carried in a pretty floral Cath Kidston bag, while the clothes she wore to court were from middle-class favourites Boden and The White Company.
Her comfortable lifestyle was hardly surprising given that investigators believe the true scale of her financial deceit was well in excess of 100,000, but the official figure was reduced to 85,898 on a legal technicality.
One can only wonder at the chutzpah of a woman who has never held down a job, and continued to claim child benefit even after her children were put in the custody of their father.
The court heard that when he confronted her about it, she refused to give up the money, describing it as ‘my income’.
Such selfish, grasping behaviour has underpinned La Garde’s life. Her first marriage resulted in two children, but ended messily and resulted in La Garde becoming estranged from the children, whom she has not seen for many years.
Even after meeting the man she would go on to marry and have three more children with, including the boy forced to feign cancer, she continued her feud with the ex-husband.
During her trial, counsel for the defence attempted to paint La Garde as a victim in a series of controlling relationships.
Her parents, who are standing by her, backed up this version of events and handed a letter to the court pleading mitigating circumstances because of her difficult past.
The judge disagreed. Not least, one imagines, because of medical reports stating that while La Garde was not mentally ill, she suffers from a personality disorder.
Perks: La Garde used the benefit she falsely claimed to go on expensive holidays abroad. On one occasion she took her children to a location in Florida. South Beach in Miami is pictured
Medical sources said it had proved almost impossible to treat her successfully because she was, as the judge put it, a ‘congenital liar’ who had ‘all but lost the ability to tell the truth’. The court heard that she has committed similar frauds in the past, over long periods of time.
One particular deceit, previously unreported, came about because of the ongoing feud with her ex-husband.
Sources close to the investigation revealed that La Garde’s subsequent partner once arrived home to find her ‘black and blue’ and claiming that she had been assaulted by her ex-husband.
When the ‘assault’ was investigated, it emerged that the man in question had moved thousands of miles away to a foreign country. Her injuries, it transpired, were self-inflicted.
Of course, of all the victims of her lies, none has suffered as much as her innocent son — a boy whose life changed irrevocably in 2008, when, aged six, he began complaining of pains in his legs.
A trip to the family GP revealed nothing more sinister than enlarged tonsils. Still, blood tests were carried out, then the GP wrote to La Garde confirming that there was nothing to worry about.
For reasons known only to herself, it was at this point that she began her scam. Using the surgery’s letterhead, she created a forged document stating that her son had ALPS — autoimmune lympho-proliferative syndrome — causing an enlarged spleen. She sent it to the boy’s school and to the Department of Work and Pensions to claim Disability Living Allowance.
The following year she upped the ante, sending her son to school in a wheelchair donated by the Red Cross and telling his teachers that he couldn’t do physical education lessons or run around.
As far as La Garde was concerned, this was a masterstroke. Already receiving large sums of money from the state, she secured a brand new Vauxhall Zafira via the Motability scheme and took her children on holiday to Disney World in Florida.
Guilty: Judge Jamie Tabor QC described the mother's conduct as 'quite beyond the pale' at Gloucester Crown Court (pictured). He sentenced her to three years and nine months in prison
Once there, she exploited the fact that her son was in a wheelchair to jump the queues.
Back at home, however, her husband was becoming suspicious, noting that the boy couldn’t wait to get out of the wheelchair and play on his trampoline.
Despite this, La Garde stepped up her plan, sending another forged doctor’s letter to the school claiming her son had lymphoma, a type of cancer.
It was around this time that the couple separated — a development which would finally cause her web of deceit to unravel.
In February 2010, La Garde told teachers that the medication her son was taking would make his hair fall out. Days later, he attended school wearing a bandana and with his eyebrows shaved.
Despite the fact that his shaved hairline was obvious, the school authorities were reluctant to act, and it was only when the boy’s father made a rare visit to the school that the lies were exposed.
Shown the medical letters by a teacher, he was immediately sceptical and took them to the GP, who confirmed that the boy was not suffering from cancer or any other major condition.
Social services were contacted, and in May 2010 La Garde was finally arrested.
Even then, La Garde continued to lie, falsely claiming benefits until June last year by telling the authorities that her children were living with her, when they had in fact been taken into care.
It transpired she was even claiming money for the boy’s younger sister, who she said also suffered from ALPS.
When interviewed by police, she said she had shaved her son’s head after giving him a bad haircut. In an act of breathtaking stubbornness, she even went so far as to deny ever saying that her son had cancer.
The boy's life changed irrevocably in 2008 when his mother took him to visit the GP who said there was nothing to worry about (file picture)
Her denials were to no avail. Naturally, questions arise about the role of the father in the scam, although investigators do not believe he was party to the fraud. In fact, he was the catalyst for La Garde being exposed and was a key prosecution witness.
When La Garde was arrested in 2010, the three children were handed into the custody of their father. Sadly, this arrangement did not work out and they are now in care, much to the regret of their grandparents.
This week the children’s grandfather, speaking from his home on a private estate, declined to discuss the case in detail but said: ‘What I can say is that the family will certainly derive closure from the outcome of this case.
‘The outcome justifies removal of the children from their mother’s care and the family applaud custodial sentencing since the offences, including child cruelty, seem only to have been motivated by greed.’
He said the family’s primary concern was to ensure the children lead as normal a life as possible, though how that will be achieved remains to be seen.
For his part, her traumatised son now describes her as ‘evil’.
‘I don’t like her,’ is his brutally direct assessment. ‘She is evil. I don’t think she has a normal brain. I didn’t really understand what was happening.
‘I don’t miss her any more. I did wonder why she picked on me. I have spoken with Dad about it loads, and it must have been because of my age.’
Though the boy is said to be intelligent and well-mannered, social workers remain concerned that he will be left with issues of abandonment and unfounded concerns about his own health and wellbeing, caused by being forced to act out the role of invalid for so long.
It all adds up to a dismal tale of child exploitation: a serial bad mother who has let down five children in turn.
But can we be sure it is over For all her failings, La Garde will in all likelihood be released from prison in less than two years, back into the arms of her latest boyfriend, who is standing by her.
By then La Garde will be barely 38 — easily still young enough to have more children, should she desire. It is a terrifying prospect.